The Hope of Marseille

By Claire Berlinski

France’s most Muslim city offers a surprising model in the war on anti-Semitism.

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The commencement of the second Palestinian Intifada, in late 2000, ignited the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France since the Holocaust. It continues to this day. The crimes have been perpetrated almost entirely by the beur—Arab immigrants. The political alliances forged between Jewish and Arab leaders during the rise of the right-wing National Front have broken down.
Marseille, France’s second-largest and oldest city, was initially not exempt. In September 2001, the Gan Pardes school in Marseille was set alight. The words “Death to the Jews” and “Bin Laden Will Conquer” were spray-painted on the walls. Over the next year, Jewish cemeteries were defaced and swastikas painted on Jewish homes. During demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, marchers shouted, “All Arabs are Palestinians! We are all suicide bombers!”
On March 31, 2002, a series of coordinated anti-Semitic attacks took place throughout France: Masked assailants smashed cars into a Lyon synagogue and set it on fire; a shotgun was fired into a kosher butcher shop in Toulouse; arsonists attempted to burn down a synagogue in Strasbourg. A Jewish couple was assaulted in a small village along the Rhone. In Marseille, the Or Aviv Synagogue in the quiet northern neighborhood of Les Caillols was reduced to ashes by arsonists and the Tora scrolls charred.
To the bewilderment of French Jews, the Palestinian Intifada has attenuated, but the so-called French Intifada has not—except in one city. The violence in Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, and other major French cities has continued, and in some places worsened. In these cities, anti-Semitism appears to be uncontainable. But in Marseille, the animus has fizzled out. The city reacted with revulsion to the burning of the Or Aviv Synagogue. City-wide protests against anti-Semitism were immediately organized; Arabs participated in the demonstrations. The leaders of Marseille’s Islamic community firmly condemned the attack. By contrast, after similar violence in Toulouse, Muslim community leaders offered not one single gesture of solidarity.
Marseille is not free of anti-Semitism, by no means; the city, after all, is the political base of the National Front, whose campaigns are driven by a furious anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment. But by comparison with the rest of France, Marseille is calm. There are no burned cars, as in Strasbourg, nor urban riots, as in Paris and Lyon. In the rest of France, the violence against Jews appears to be organized. Some Jewish leaders believe it to be centrally planned and directed, perhaps by al-Qaida cells; they note that as on March 31, 2002, similar attacks often occur in separate cities on the same day, and find improbable the claim that this is mere coincidence. In Marseille, however, what violence there is seems to be spontaneous, disorganized, and largely committed by disaffected, economically disadvantaged juveniles who spend too much time watching al-Jazeera via satellite dish.
Marseille is a city of immigrants. Fully a quarter of its population is of North African origin, and demographers predict that Marseille will be the first city on the European continent with an Islamic majority. Its Jewish community is the third-largest in Europe. The most ethnically diverse city in France, then, has paradoxically been the most successful in containing this outbreak of ethnic violence.
A few months ago, I went to Marseille to investigate this anomaly. My operating assumption was that Marseille’s calm must be attributable to particularly vigorous police work. I spoke to cab drivers and waiters, to the police chief and his deputy, to street cops and to officials at city hall. I spoke to regional historians and archivists; I spoke to right-wing and left-wing community leaders. Everyone agreed that Marseille’s calm was no accident. There is something unique about the city that protects it from cyclones of ethnic violence. I was told, and slowly became convinced, that the efficacy of the police was only one part of the story.
Few social phenomena have monocausal explanations, and of course there is more than one reason for Marseille’s comparative tranquility. But one aspect of the answer is a surprising one: It is Marseille’s approach to ethnic community politics, an approach that is unlike that of any other city in France.
This approach, in fact, challenges the core principles of the French republican ideal, and the historic concept of what it means to be French.

Claire Berlinski is a writer living in Paris. She is currently working on a study of the challenges facing the European political order. Her last contribution to Azure was a review of Jean-François Revel’s Anti-Americanism (Azure 18, Autumn 2004).

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